If rumors and speculation are to be believed, the next Xbox and the PlayStation 4 will not be backwards compatible with downloadable games. That means any games bought on the Xbox 360 (XBLA or Games on Demand), will be stuck on our old consoles gathering dust. If that’s the case, then I will never buy a downloadable game from Microsoft ever again (and most likely Sony, too). In my eyes, these companies are violating an unwritten agreement with consumers that the games we buy should still work years into the future.
Since the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005, I have been full bore in support of the Xbox ecosystem. In the early days I bought XBLA games like Geometry Wars and Gauntlet. I bought pictures for my Gamercard and themes for my dashboard. As the operating system upgraded, I continued my support buying Premium Themes, map packs, and downloadable Rock Band tracks. All the while, I begrudgingly accepted the console’s anti-consumer no return policy (more on that later). In more recent months, I even bought clothes for my avatar and Season Passes, despite their frequent lackluster content (*ahem* Borderlands 2). Now, after pouring in countless dollars into the downloadable game market, it appears that my purchases will have a lifespan no longer than 7 years (and in most cases, even shorter). Why the hell would I ever buy another piece of digital content if this is the kind of return I get on my investment?
Here’s how I judge the situation -- imagine if you will, buying the new Justin Timberlake album on Amazon. Because you’re a modern consumer you skip the CD and you want to buy the MP3 version. Now, what if I told you that because of format changes, the MP3s you bought will only be playable for another year. After a year you will need to buy the album again. That’s a bunch of malarkey, right? If you’re like me, you’d skip that purchase and look for a better vendor or a more stable medium (buy the CD, son!).
The big problem with downloadable games on the Xbox is that many of the worthwhile games and content for sale on the Xbox Marketplace are exclusive to the console. Like in the case of Fez, I am stuck with only the XBLA version because of an exclusivity agreement. This is unfortunate for consumers and is an incredibly poor decision by the Microsoft brass. You see, I want to be able to give Microsoft and Polygon (the developer of Fez) my money. But if you’re going to hamstring consumers with what amounts to be a game rental, I’d rather wait the release out until it hits disc or, better yet, it hits Steam.
Steam and, in lesser ways, iTunes, recognize the value in infinite support. When I purchase a Steam game, it should work well into the future. As long as my computer is up to specifications, my copy of Half-Life 2 will be there waiting for me to replay. In the same vein, iTunes has also shown that iOS purchases work from generation to generation of Apple's devices. There’s no guarantee that this will always be the case, but so far Apple has done a nice job of keeping our purchases portable going forward.
The real backbreaker in this situation is Microsoft’s ridiculous no-refunds or returns policy. Bear with me a second here as I share my experience with this policy. A couple years back my son was new to the world and exploring everything around him. One of his favorite pastimes was mimicking the actions of adults. He loved to play with my Xbox controller and, normally, I would remove the battery pack so he wouldn’t get into too much trouble. Unfortunately, one day he grabbed a live controller and pressed the “A” button several times. Enough times to purchase $10 of DLC for a game that I didn’t own. Noticing my empty money account on Xbox Live, I found the purchase and called Microsoft. I explained the situation and mentioned to the customer service representative that I never owned the game and never would own the game. I would like a refund. Unfortunately for me, a refund of digital content is impossible and now I own a map pack for a game that I still have not played.
Going forward, Microsoft’s self-serving policies on current and future content have left me with the foulest of tastes in my mouth. Even though I have been the most ardent of Xbox fanboys since the middle of the last console cycle, I cannot abide by the company’s decision to not support the content that they spoon fed us from the beginning. I’d much rather put my money in the pockets of Gabe Newell and PC developers who appreciate their customers with their games. Sure, Valve has a no-return policy too, but at least I know I own the game I am playing.
- Alex Keen is a freelance staffer at Arcade Sushi. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the staff at Arcade Sushi or Townsquare Media. (He may or may not get invited to future Microsoft parties at E3.)